Posts tagged ‘image of computer science’

How do CS students make educational decisions? Previewing Mike Hewner’s PhD Defense

Mike Hewner may be the most technically adept student with whom I’ve worked — he’s a former Senior Software Engineer from Amazon.  He’s written probably the most intensely qualitative dissertation of any student with whom I’ve worked.  Mike used a grounded theory approach with 37 interviews.  The amount of analysis and coding he did is staggering.

His question is one that impacts all computer science teachers.  We know (from lots of sources) that students don’t really understand computer science.  Mike set out to document how students’ misunderstandings lead them astray in their CS undergraduate degree program, e.g., avoiding some classes because they misunderstood what they were about, or pursuing some specialization because they thought it was something that it really wasn’t.  The surprising result was that he didn’t really find evidence of that.  Instead, students simply trusted the curriculum — they didn’t know what was coming, but they didn’t worry about it.

As I learned from Mike’s process, grounded theory results in a “theory,” i.e. a description of a mechanism.  Mike’s theory describes how students make educational decisions.  His theory tells us that factors that shouldn’t really matter (like whether the intro course is at 8 am) do impact decisions like whether to pursue CS as a major.  I’ll give away Mike’s punchline: Students use “enjoyment” to decide if they have an affinity for a subject.  They turn the question “Should I be a CS major? Am I good at it?” into “Did I enjoy my CS class? Did I enjoy another class more?”  They don’t really distinguish between “I have a hard time understanding functions” and “The class was at 8 am” or “That was a lousy teacher.”  Not enjoyment means no affinity, which means look for something else.  Once students decide that they have an affinity for something, they do develop a more goal-based decision making process — they’ll stick through the hard classes, because it helps them achieve the goal of the degree that they’ve decided that they have an affinity for.

Mike is defending on Friday — I’m really looking forward to it.  I heard the practice talk Tuesday and was impressed.  Assuming all goes well, Mike will be joining Rose-Hulman in the Spring.

Title: Student Conceptions About the Field of Computer Science
Michael Hewner
Human-Centered Computing
School of Interactive Computing
College of Computing
Georgia Institute of Technology
Date: Friday, November 2, 2012
Time: 1:00-4:00pm
Location: TSRB 132
Committee:
————-
Prof. Mark Guzdial (Advisor, College of Computing, Georgia Institute
of Technology)
Prof. Amy Bruckman (College of Computing, Georgia Institute of Technology)
Prof. Keith Edwards (College of Computing, Georgia Institute of Technology)
Prof. Ellen Zegura (College of Computing, Georgia Institute of Technology)
Prof. Yasmin Kafai (School of Graduate Education, University of Pennsylvania)
Abstract:
————-
Computer Science is a complex field, and even experts do not always
agree how the field should be defined. Though a moderate amount is
known about how precollege students think about the field of CS, less
is known about how CS majors’ conceptions of the field develop during
the undergraduate curriculum.  Given the difficulty of understanding
CS, how do students make educational decisions like what electives or
specializations to pursue?
This work presents a theory of student conceptions of CS, based on 37
interviews with students and student advisers and analyzed with a
grounded theory approach.  Students tend to have one of three main
views about CS: CS as an academic discipline focused on the
mathematical study of algorithms, CS as mostly about programming but
also incorporating supporting subfields, and CS as a broad discipline
with many different (programming and non-programming) subfields.  I
have also developed and piloted a survey instrument to determine how
prevalent each kind of conception in the undergraduate population.
I also present a theory of student educational decisions in CS.
Students do not usually have specific educational goals in CS and
instead take an exploratory approach to their classes.  Particularly
enjoyable or unenjoyable classes cause them to narrow their
educational focus.  As a result, students do not reason very deeply
about the CS content of their classes when they make educational
decisions.
This work makes three main contributions: the theory of student
conceptions, the theory of student educational decisions, and the
preliminary survey instrument for evaluating student conceptions.
This work has applications in CS curriculum design as well as for
future research in the CS education community.

November 1, 2012 at 8:27 am 14 comments

NCWIT Pioneer Awards to two women of Project Mercury: Following their passions

The NCWIT Aspirations Awards have highlighted the achievements of high school women aiming for computing careers.  Last night, NCWIT started a new award, the Pioneer Award, given to women who paved the way for others in computing.

The awardees were Patricia Palumbo (left in picture) and Lucy Simon Rakov (right), who were both programmers on the Project Mercury Team.  I loved their talks, not just for what they did on Project Mercury, but what they did the rest of their lives.

Patricia graduated with a mathematics degree from Barnard College, one of only two women.  She was recruited by IBM and worked on the re-entry phase.  I loved her story of what she did after that.  She earned her Master’s degree in piano, and did work in computer music composition and image processing (Media Computation!).  She has retired from computing, but still teaches piano and records in her home studio.  She said that mathematics and music have always been her passions, and she saw the computer as “a general purpose tool” that could help any pursuit, any occupation, including music.

Lucy was on a team at IBM of 100 mathematicians, 10 of whom were women.  They were among the programmers building the first real-time control system.  She worked on the launch sequence, and in particular, worked on importing live radar data into the orbit computations.  After IBM, she ran her own business, Lucy Systems Inc. (LSI) for 27 years.  She encouraged the audience to follow their passions.  She said that, when she’s doing mathematics and computing, she’s in “flow” and loses track of time.  She told us to find those kinds of jobs.

We’ve talked here before about the issues of culture that drive women from computing.  Here were two women who got into computing before the culture we know today was established, and they were driven by what the computer could do, and what they could do with a computer.  That’s what we need to convey, in order to draw more diverse people into computing.

May 23, 2012 at 8:51 am 2 comments

The Greatest Potential Impact of Computing Education: Performamatics & Non-Majors

We’ve had Jesse Heines of U. Massachusetts at Lowell visiting with us for the last couple weeks.  He gave a GVU Brown Bag talk on Thursday about his Performamatics project — which has an article in this month’s IEEE Computer!  Jesse has been teaching a cross-disciplinary course on computational thinking, where he team teaches with a music teacher.  Students work in Scratch to explore real music and real computing.  For example, they start out inventing musical notations for “found” instruments (like zipping and unzipping a coat), and talk about the kinds of notations we invent in computer science.  I particularly enjoyed this video of the music teacher, Alex Ruthmann, performing an etude through live coding.

Jesse and I talked afterward: Where does this go from here?  Where could Performamatics have its greatest impact?  We talked about how these music examples could be used in introductory computing courses (CS1 and CS2), but that’s not what’s most exciting.  Is the greatest potential impact of computing education creating more CS majors, creating more developers?  Developers do have a lot of impact, because they build the software that fuels our world (or maybe, that eats our world).  But developers don’t have a monopoly on impact.

I argued that the greatest impact for computing educators is on the non-majors and their attitudes about computing.  I showed him some quotes that Brian Dorn collected in his ICER 2010 paper about adult graphics designers (who have similar educational backgrounds and interests to Jesse’s non-majors) on their attitudes about computer scientists:

P2: I went to a meeting for some kind of programmers, something or other. And they were OLD, and they were nerdy, and they were boring! And I’m like, this is not my personality. Like I can’t work with people like that. And they worked at like IBM, or places like that. They’ve been doing, they were working with Pascal. And I didn’t…I couldn’t see myself in that lifestyle for that long.

P5: I don’t know a whole ton of programmers, but the ones I know, they enjoy seeing them type up all these numbers and stuff and what it makes things do. Um, whereas I just do it, to get it done and to get paid. To be honest. The design aspect is what really interests me a lot more.

These are adults, perhaps not much different than your state or federal legislators, your school administrators, or even your CEO. Brian’s participants are adults who don’t think much of computer scientists and what they do.  There are a lot of adults in the world who don’t think much of computer scientists, despite all evidence of the value of computing and computing professionals in our world.

Will Jesse’s students think the same things about computer scientists 5 years after his course?  10 years later?  Or will they have new, better-informed views about computer science and computer scientists?  The 2005 paper by Scaffidi, Shaw, and Myers predicted 3 million professional software developers in the US by 2012, and 13 million professionals who program but aren’t software developers.  That’s a lot of people programming without seeing themselves as computer scientists or developers. Would even more program if they weren’t predisposed to think that computer science is so uninteresting?

That’s where I think the greatest impact of work like Performamatics might be — in changing the attitudes of the everyday citizens, improving their technical literacy, giving them greater understanding of the computing that permeates their lives, and keeping them open to the possibility that they might be part of that 13 million that needs to use programming in their careers.  There will only be so many people who get CS degrees.  There will be lots of others who will have attitudes about computing that will influence everything from federal investments to school board policies. It’s a large and important impact to influence those attitudes.

December 13, 2011 at 7:47 am 1 comment

No cost for cheerleading or band instead of CS? Offer remedial classes for those who missed CS?

I got beat up a bit after my talk at TTU Tapestry a couple weeks ago. Two teachers from the same school stopped me at lunch, after my keynote, and complained about how we at Georgia Tech run our CS1 for Engineers in MATLAB.  “How can you expect students to be able to succeed in a programming course, with no high school CS?  Why don’t you offer some starter course with no programming first?”  I tried to explain that students do succeed in all three of our CS1’s with no previous programming experience, and our data suggest that students learn and succeed (e.g., relatively small percentage drop-out or fail) in these courses.  (This is in sharp contrast to the Peter Norvig piece about learning Java in 21 days.)

As the teachers went on with their complaints about me and Georgia Tech,  more of the story came out. Some of their students had gone to Georgia Tech in Engineering, had floundered in the CS for Engineers course, and were calling these high school teachers regularly for help.  “They spend a huge amount of hours working in labs!  More than others in their class, because they didn’t get the chance to take CS in high school.  Some kids have band or cheerleading, and they can’t fit CS in.  That shouldn’t mean that they have to spend so much extra time in lab to catch up!”

It’s that last argument that I had the most trouble with.  Their students didn’t have the background knowledge in CS. It seems clear to me that those students should have to work harder than those that have the background knowledge. That the teachers thought that the extra work was unusual or extreme surprised me.  There was an implicit assumption that, because these students didn’t get the background classes due to band and cheerleading, we at Georgia Tech should provide remedial classes.  To be clear, it’s not that the CS wasn’t offered at their high school. Their school has two CS teachers. It’s just that cheerleading and band took priority over preparing for the Engineering program at Georgia Tech, which requires computer science.

What is the expectation of high school teachers for the workload in CS1?  What is the expectation of high school teachers for what College CS classes will demand?  Is it reasonable to expect Colleges to provide the introductory classes that others get in high school?  Maybe it is reasonable for Colleges to provide more high school level classes, especially if we want to grow enrollment.  But I do worry about the perspective that says that it’s reasonable to skip the intellectual background classes because of non-academic activities.  I have nothing against non-academic activities like band and cheerleading.  However, the non-academic activities are not an excuse for a lack of background knowledge for higher-education — and if you do miss the background classes, you should expect to have to work harder when you get to College.

July 19, 2011 at 8:56 am 8 comments

Shrinking our turf: Defining CS out of Interaction Design

A member of the SIGCSE mailing list asked the other day for recommendations on teaching a course on “HCI or Interaction Design.”  We at Georgia Tech teach a variety of undergraduate and graduate courses like that, and I figured that lots of others do, too.  I was surprised at some of the responses:

  • “Our main theme was that computer scientists should know how to implement interfaces but should not try to design them. Frankly, I’ve not seen any evidence that has changed my mind since then.”
  • “My personal experience with over 20 years of teaching GUIs is that CS students can be taught to be quite good at the software development aspects of GUIs, that they can be taught to at least understand good interaction design techniques, but that it does not really resonate with them and they do not tend to do it well, and that most of them are hopeless with respect to artistic design.”
Not all of the responses had this attitude that I might call “Not on my turf.”  Bill Manaris pointed out that he was part of a workshop that defined an interesting series of courses that aimed to teach HCI and interaction design front-and-center in an undergraduate computer science curriculum.  Overall, I got the strong message from the thread that the recommendation was: Computer scientists build software, but don’t expect them to deal well with interactions with people.
My first thought was reflexive. “What?!? We do this all the time!”  Georgia Tech’s Computer Science degree explicitly has a Thread on People,   Students who study the People thread (which is pretty popular) explicitly take courses in psychology, interface design, as well as how to build user interface software.  Our students go on to take jobs where they do design user interfaces, and work as part of teams building and evaluating user interfaces.  Not all computer science students at Georgia Tech take the People Thread, but that’s fine.  Not all computer scientists study AI, but I haven’t heard anyone argue that AI isn’t part of computer science.  There are lots of kinds of computer scientists.
My second thought was more reflective. “Why are we defining CS out of the role of interaction design?”  Surely, knowing something about computer science makes for a better interaction designer.  Painters start out by studying what their paints and brushes are capable of.  All designers first start by exploring the potential of their design materials.  Surely we can all agree computer science is connected to interaction design.
I can’t disagree with the experiences described in the messages — I’m sure that the SIGCSE members who posted really did see what they saw.  Those experiences say that students who currently go into computer science are not interested in nor have an aptitude for interaction design.  I can believe that, but that doesn’t define the discipline.  That observation is an outcome of our recruitment efforts, our lack of computer science in high schools (so only some students ever get introduced to CS), and the culture of our field that is mostly white, male, and with less value for interaction with people.  The fact that Georgia Tech CS students (and certainly students at other schools, especially those offering the courses that the Manaris workshop designed) can do interaction design, successfully, is an existence proof.
A bigger question for me is, “Why would we want to define computer science out of any design activity involving computing?” What is the value of saying, “Computer scientists can’t do X” for any value of X?  Why would we want to shrink our intellectual turf?  Wikipedia defines: “Computer science or computing science (abbreviated CS) is the study of the theoretical foundations of information and computation and of practical techniques for their implementation and application in computer systems.”  While that isn’t a great definition, “practical techniques” allows for a wide range of activities, including interaction design.  Why would we want to give that up and say that that’s not CS?
In the College of Computing at Georgia Tech, we talk about Computing as becoming as large and broad as Engineering.  The virtual world can be even larger and  more complex than the natural world.  Eventually, we expect that there will be recognized Schools of Computing, just as there are recognized Schools of Mechanical, Chemical, Civil, and Electrical Engineering today.  Here at Georgia Tech, we already have three Schools: Computer Science (traditional definition), Interactive Computing, and Computational Science and Engineering.  All of us faculty in the College of Computing see ourselves as computer scientists.
There are going to be branches of computer science.  One of those will include HCI and interaction design.  Let’s grow our branches, not prune them off.

June 23, 2011 at 10:57 am 13 comments

Wolfram on the importance of computing for understanding the world

Spending too much time in airports lately, I’ve been catching up on some of my TED video watching — the ones that everyone says I have to watch, but I didn’t have time until now. One of those that I watched recently was Stephen Wolfram’s on A New Kind of Science and Wolfram-Alpha. I realized that he’s really making a computing education argument. He explicitly is saying that computing is necessary for understanding the natural world, and all scientists need to learn about computation in order to make the next round of discoveries about how our universe works.

http://video.ted.com/assets/player/swf/EmbedPlayer.swf

June 6, 2011 at 10:39 am 3 comments

Drill bits and Eclipse — it’s really all about the same

Really?  CS is just another form of shop class? Really?

That response heartens Paula M. Krebs, a professor of English at Wheaton College, in Massachusetts, who said she has worried that higher education “could succumb to the language of utility.” Colleges shouldn’t be judged, she argued, on graduates’ first jobs out but rather on the intellectual foundation they provide.

After all, says Ms. Krebs, now an American Council on Education fellow at the University of Massachusetts, “no one thinks high school should be training for the work world only. No one advocates a high-school curriculum of just shop classes, or just computer-science courses. You have to take English, math, history.”

via Higher Education in America: a Crisis of Confidence – Surveys of the Public and Presidents – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

May 18, 2011 at 11:12 am 16 comments

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